A food memory, my first trip to the Canadian East Coast, it was early May and cold in Nova Scotia. I was with a friend who insisted we drive to Peggy’s Cove, I didn’t really want to, I thought that it would be touristy and I was interested in only experiencing the “real” East Coast what a snob I was. It was a beautiful, clear and brilliantly sunny day, the sky was a deep Wedgwood blue, and of course the sound of the crashing waves and the spray of the dark grey Atlantic, all of it perfect just like the hundreds of pictures of Peggy’s Cove that I had seen before. But what made the day for me was the restaurant that was there; I remember the salmon being so fresh that I knew at the time that i would never eat salmon as fresh as that again ( I haven’t) and for dessert, warm, spicy gingerbread with lemon sauce, an East Coast specialty and a big mug of hot tea. I don’t remember the interior of the restaurant other then there were lots of windows, the food however was simple, local, regional, and perfect. I had found my East Coast experience and it was only the first day.
Gingerbread is a cake unless of course it’s gingerbread cookies, and gingerbread is more common on the East Coast of Canada then elsewhere in the country; molasses the main sweetener in both the cake and cookies was directly imported into the region due to the “north south” trading routes to the Caribbean. Trading ships carried Canadian timber south and returned heavily loaded with exotic items and molasses, necessary for the production of rum. Molasses is a key ingredient in many east coast dishes; baked beans, cookies and steamed brown bread, and many houses, molasses was used as a pouring syrup on pancakes, and biscuits. The use of molasses did come west with the United Empire Loyalists, in fact in late 19th century and early 20th century cookbooks like the 1915 ed. of the Five Roses cookbook, there is a section devoted entirely to gingerbread. How to explain the popularity of molasses in Ontario? Most farmers produced their own maple syrup so buying molasses wasn’t necessary and then later, sugar refining became big business in Ontario and refined white sugar became more affordable. So, hopefully this explain the regional popularity of molasses and gingerbread, but how did gingerbread end up in Canada?
Most European countries have a strong gingerbread tradition, dating back to at least the 11th century when the crusaders returning from whatever crusaders do, brought spices back with them, including ginger, cinnamon and peppercorns. Early gingerbread recipes were sweetened with honey, often used bread crumbs instead of flour, and were often steamed like a pudding. By the time of colonization in North America, gingerbread was sweetened with both sugar ( a small quantity) and molasses, flour had replaced the breadcrumbs and the cakes were baked. In the Martha Washington cookbook, a manuscript with strong links to early 18th England, there are five recipes for “ginger bread” of various types.
The European colonists, the French, English, German and the United Empire Loyalists fleeing the American revolution all brought their ginger bread tradition with them to Canada. This tradition continues when ever we make gingerbread cake, or cookie, and has even evolved into something new as gingerbread houses have become a North American tradition at Christmas.
Enough history, back to the cake. Signal Hill Gingerbread is a recipe from the Laura Secord cookbook, first published in 1966, as the Laura Secord Canadian Cookbook, the introduction states “One thing that we did prove conclusively: there is a Canadian cuisine and it is unique to the world.” The recipes are sourced from all over the country, from private homes. Signal Hill gingerbread is named for the hill that overlooks the harbour in St. John’s Newfoundland. It has a distinct molasses flavour, it also has a unique method, that couldn’t be easier. Serve it warm with either a lemon, or custard sauce or even whipped cream.
Signal Hill Gingerbread
Oven to 350 F.
Butter a square 8″ pan
2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup soft butter (unsalted or salted)
3/4 cup mplasses
1 cup boiling water
In a large bowl, stir all of the dry ingredients together, then add the butter, molasses and the egg. Beat for two minutes or “300 strokes by hand” (that’s from the book). Next, stir in the boiling water. Beat an additional two minutes and pour into the prepared pan.
Bake for approx. 40 to 50 min. Start testing the cake at 40 minutes, then every five minutes or so, if it’s getting too dark, turn your oven down to 300 F. until the cake is cooked.
Serve warm, although the flavour does improve and mellow the next day.